QandA

The Skin He's In

British composer George Benjamin, whose new opera Written on Skin receives its world premiere this month at the Aix-en-Provence festival, chats with ADAM WASSERMAN about the work's inception and progress to the stage.

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Bejun Mehta, Christopher Purves and Barbara Hannigan in the world premiere production of George Benjamin's Written on Skin, directed by Katie Mitchell
Pascal Victor/Artcomart

Watch the world premiere of George Benjamin's Written on Skin at Medici.tv

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George Benjamin
© Maurice Foxall
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Barbara Hannigan as Agnès with Bejun Mehta as The Boy
Pascal Victor/Artcomart

Perhaps the most striking facet of composer George Benjamin's music is how easily his compositions transcend their often modest scale. An exacting, fastidious composer, Benjamin writes in a way that can seem driven — if not obsessed — by the sonorities of an individual instrument, be it a bass flute, a viola ( Excerpt from "Viola, Viola"; Nimbus Records 2004) or a human voice. Filled with the pungent reticence of a Pinter play ( Excerpt from "Piano Sonata: I. Vivace"; Nimbus Records 2004), his music has an uncanny ability to wend its way into a listener's consciousness: anxious little figurations will keep you hurriedly looking over your shoulder until you realize that an unsettling lyricism ( Excerpt from Into the Little Hill; Nimbus Records 2009) has very quietly unfolded directly in front of you. It's music of a highly uncommon, almost insidious beauty. 

Benjamin's first opera, the Pied Piper-inspired "lyric tale," Into the Little Hill, stands as a marvel of narrative and musical economy. Given its premiere in 2006, the work spans just forty minutes, and features two female voices — a soprano and contralto — alongside an eclectic chamber ensemble. It has found acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic.

Now, with this month's premiere at the Aix-en-Provence festival of his new opera, Written on Skin, Benjamin is stretching out. Featuring an original libretto by the playwright Martin Crimp, the work finds inspiration in the twelfth-century Occitan vida of troubadour Guillem de Cabestany. With a duration of more than an hour — and utilizing five singers and an orchestra five times larger than Benjamin's previous lyrical work — Written on Skin spans centuries and provides a modern scaffolding to a historical affair and its tragic outcome. Perhaps most tellingly for a modern opera, the work was given remarkable legs before audiences ever heard a note: companies that have already signed on to produce the opera include Covent Garden, Netherlands Opera, Bavarian State Opera, Wiener Festwochen, Florence's Teatro del Maggio Musicale, Paris's Opéra Comique and Toulouse's Théâtre du Capitole. Benjamin spoke with OPERA NEWS at the beginning of April.

OPERA NEWS: I'm curious about the inception of Written on Skin. How did you settle on the idea of an opera based on a twelfth-century folktale? What about the story suggested to you that it would be potent as an opera?

GEORGE BENJAMIN: Well, it's a sort of troubadour tale called a razo. It was a composed thing, rather like a short story, in troubadour terms. It was a story that was tremendously successful and famous in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, and then it briefly returned to fame because Stendhal did a translation of it in the early nineteenth century.

But, firstly, the whole project owes its inception to the director of the Aix-en-Provence Festival, Bernard Foccroulle, who has been a friend and supporter to my work for at least twenty years and first asked me for an opera well over fifteen years ago. He approached [librettist] Martin Crimp and me when he arrived at the Aix position five or six years ago. We asked Foccroulle if he had any requests. He said, "Just one. Could you maybe consider writing something which had some connection to Aix-en-Provence and this area? Provence history or Occitan history." So Martin's oldest daughter was studying this era at Cambridge in England, and she asked her professor–supervisor for any stories, and he suggested this one. Martin read it first, and he found it strong and dramatic. There was one thing in particular that he liked, which was the very ending — the main woman's concluding act. She became a soprano in the opera. He found the act very surprising, particularly in the way it's expressed in the original. He came to me with the story, and I read it and immediately thought it was very strong and telling, so we embarked on it.  

ON: In Guillem de Cabestany's original story, the main character is a troubadour. In this opera, you've made him into a visual artist, an illuminator.

GB: Martin Crimp and I wrote an opera together before called Into the Little Hill, which was the story of the Pied Piper of Hamlin. In it, the central figure was a magical musician who transformed the world around him through music. We didn't want to repeat ourselves, so with Written on Skin we've changed the central figure into an artist that was equally truthful and relevant to that age, which was the art of illumination. We did a lot of research, Martin particularly, and illuminators were itinerant artists traveling from court to court, where they would stay for a few years, producing magnificent works of illumination — the most handsome, beautiful and expensive books — before then moving on. We simply transposed the story out of a desire not to repeat ourselves. The idea of illumination appealed to both of us enormously as well, though.

There are dramatic possibilities that arise out of the occupation, and with Martin's text, there are poetic ones — the analogies, erotic and otherwise — of the idea of writing on parchment and producing beautiful images on skin.

I should say that one thing that's very important to Martin and me is that it's not actually a medieval opera at all. It's an opera set in the now with a reenactment of something happening in the distant past. It starts and, in fact, ends today. The very first words of the opera are twenty-first-century angels proclaiming to the audience that they're going to be taken back on a journey — forced back — to an age before concrete, before air flights, before television and electricity. I haven't used the exact words. But they are taken back swiftly eight hundred years and then presented with the situation and characters — these angels of today reenact the story of an ancient past for a contemporary audience. Throughout the story, the singers remind the audience that they're not pretending to be the people, like in a movie — they're reenacting the story and giving a little distance. I hope that, once the audience gets used to it, they will feel maybe more at ease with this way of story-telling than in trying to dramatize an opera in a too-naturalistic way, which seems, to me, problematic in the age of movies.

ON: You secluded yourself for quite a while in order to finish the work.

GB: I'm quite hermetic when I compose. I need to shut myself away. At least, that's been the way up until now. This, by far being my largest work, meant I had to shut myself away for quite a few years. I would work continuously on the piece, seven days a week all through the year, and didn't do anything else really. I'm looking at my sketches now, and there's a big lump of paper on the floor. A large proportion of tree has gone into it. When it came down to it, I spent, from the very first note I wrote until the last note in the orchestral score, twenty six months. For someone who is habitually quite slow, like I am, that's quite fast for a hundred minutes of music.

ON: Explain your compositional process. Is it largely one of revision, or do you discard ideas until you've created something that satisfies you? 

GB: Every page, every line creates its own difficulty and problems and challenges. I sketch, and I get things wrong, and I carry on sketching until I get things nearer right, and then I carry on sketching until it seems to me I've got them right. That process can sometimes be six sketches, sometimes it can be thirty. It just depends.

The other thing is that I've tried at all stages to avoid a generic response to the text — where something dramatic happens and the music gets louder, or something dark happens and the music gets deeper, etcetera. I've tried to find, for me, a more subtle or truthful response to the highly challenging text I was given. Such an approach doesn't occur immediately. You often have — particularly at the beginning of each new scene — to find the atmosphere, to find the dramatic angle, to find the way of treating voices, to find the place within the big structure and also to find the compositional techniques to help you to write. That takes time. Each scene would start with a real, sometimes longer, sometimes shorter, period of patience. I have to wait until I find the roots I need. During those pauses, you don't think you're going to find it, but then eventually it comes.

ON: Your previous opera, Into the Little Hill, has a very specific soundscape. Instead of a singer occupying the role of the Pied Piper, it was voiced by bass flute ( Excerpt from Into the Little Hill; Nimbus Records 2009). Does Written on Skin employ similarly specific instrumental effects?

GB: I hope so, but it's all more heterogeneous, because it's on a much bigger scale. Therefore its timbral and sonoric landscape has to be much bigger to fill such a bigger canvas. The orchestra is five times bigger than Into the Little Hill, and there's five singers, not two. But just as the bass flute treatment was somewhat unusual in Into the Little Hill, here, associated with the illuminator at two moments of very particular intensity — he's tied to a viola da gamba and a glass armonica. Both are rather rare. At other points his palette expands to steel drums, bones, deep cowbells, four deep muted trumpets and low harp harmonics. So, particularly with his world, the more colorful world, there are quite a lot of unusual timbral resources at work. Each character has some sort of sound world they're associated with, I suppose. I hope, of course, the work itself has a tone to it, but that will show when it's played — or not. 

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Christopher Purves as The Protector and Barbara
Hannigan

Pascal Victor/Artcomart

ON: How did Martin Crimp — who also wrote the libretto for Into the Little Hill — create the text for this work? Was it a back-and-forth process, or did you wait until he had finished the libretto and then set it to music?

GB: We talked at great length prior to any words being written, discussing the narrative approach to the text, the stylistic and literary approach, the number of singers, the number of scenes. Though a lot of it was his decision or his suggestion, we did talk a lot. If I remember correctly, there was a very unified approach to what we were creating. Then he worked on the text for well over a year. Initially he would send me samples, which I responded to very warmly. Gradually he went on to work by himself. There was occasional discussion between us. Of course, every word counts for some really important decision for him. It's like creating a piece of jewelry, more than just an assembly of words — every word is so carefully placed in what he does.

Once he finished that, then it was handed over to me. In our previous work, I composed with virtually no contact with him at all until I'd finished the work. With this one here, there was much more contact and I asked him just a few times for a few more words, or to delete a few words because the music was taking up quite a long time and I wanted to move forward. Permission was always unhesitatingly granted. Often beginning with each scene, we would have very intense phone conversations in which I asked him about the dramatic intentions as he saw them at that point, and what was the the main weighting of the scene. His advice was tremendously helpful for me to the approach of each scene and how to begin the sketching process as well. 

ON: From a narrative perspective, Into the Little Hill was quite compact in that it assigned an enormous amount of detail to just two singers, each of whom took on several roles. The dramatic palette of Written on Skin is larger. Was it challenging for you to conceive of a work on this scale?

GB: Yes. It's something I'd always wanted to do, but I'd never found the means within myself with which to do it. But having taken the initial plunge with Into the Little Hill — which, even though it's small in operatic terms, was still big for me in terms of its duration — [Martin and I] wanted to collaborate again. We had one simple question to answer — do we do another small opera or go for something bigger? We decided to plunge for something bigger. I must admit approaching such a form, somewhere around the age of fifty, for the first time, caused me some trepidation. But once I was immersed in its world, I virtually didn't come up for air while writing it. Even though detail fascinates me, I liked working in a larger scale, in which some elements recur over an hour and others aren't touched on again. That form is something that, at least while I was writing it, I relished and enjoyed. It's not huge — it's not a Wagnerian opera. It's only a hundred minutes. But with my music, a lot happens in a short time.

Like I did before, all the roles have been designed for the specific singers that we will have at the premiere and most of the following performances. Very excitingly this week, I've just finished four days of rehearsals with the singers. It's interesting when you hear the notes sung for the first time. 

ON: Bejun Mehta sings the role of the Boy — the story's illuminator. Did you find it challenging to write for a countertenor voice?

GB: I did, because it was new to me, in some ways. But it was equally very stimulating, particularly when you have such a remarkable musician as Bejun to compose for. The singers come to me, and I take notes on them — I write and write and write. I write down everything I can about their tessitura, their capacity to leap, their tunings, things that they don't like to do, things that they do like to do, particularly strong areas in their voice. That's how I design my characters and the way they sing. What I did particularly like from the very beginning was the idea of a duet between soprano and countertenor, which happens at several points in the work between the illuminator and Agnès, the woman. There's that wonderful duet at the end of Poppea, and I liked the idea of intertwining the high male voice with the female voice within the same tessitura. That was something I really wanted to do. 

ON: You mentioned before that you've employed a viola da gamba in the score. I think most people would be surprised to hear that instrument used in a modern opera. 

GB: I love it. I find it sort of succulent and tender and strange and melancholy. I hesitated, on and off, because I don't know any pieces that mix a viola da gamba into an orchestra. There are some that set it apart as a sort of Medieval parenthesis, but not many that actually fuse it into the orchestra. I took the leap, late in the process of writing this work, to use just one. It's not used often in the work, but it's used in two very important places. I love it's capacity to effortlessly play three- or four-part chords without any problem of holding onto the notes. I've compared, at several points, the sound of harmonics in low orchestral strings with the vibrato-less, pure sound of all the notes on the viola da gamba. I'm looking forward to hearing how that works. 

ON: Is the piece set in stone at this point, or are you open to the idea of changes as it moves to different  companies and receives more performances?

GB: I think this is the final work. Let's put it this way — the vocal score is already printed. No work of mine has ever been in print before its first performance before. I will make adjustments to dynamics and mutings and shadings in the orchestral score. Also, I'm conducting the work's first performances as well as several other times over the next year and a half. So I'm sure that my fussy habits will continue in trying to get the orchestral sound as good as possible and also clarifying the notation and doing anything that I need to do in terms of detail. In terms of its substance and form, though, be it good or bad, it's fixed. spacer 

More information can be found at Festival Aix-en-Provence.

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Current Issue: September 2014 — VOL. 79, NO. 3